State, university athletics leaders divided on debated symbol
The Confederate flag is not part of Dawn Staley’s history, but it’s become a major issue in her present.
The South Carolina women’s basketball coach will never play in Columbia during the NCAA Tournament as long as the flag hangs atop a 30-foot pole in front of the State House. Since 2001, the NCAA has banned the state of South Carolina from hosting postseason events whose sites are predetermined.
Because Columbia is not a host, the Gamecocks will travel 1,620 miles to Boulder, Colo., Saturday for their first-round matchup with South Dakota State, despite being the best seed among the four teams assigned to Boulder.
Just as Staley’s team loses a competitive advantage, the state misses out on the millions in economic impact that would come with hosting men’s NCAA Tournament games. Even as the national economy has sagged in recent years, cities similar to Columbia’s size have enjoyed financial benefits from hosting.
“I understand the history here in South Carolina,” Staley said. “It’s not my history, but it’s somebody’s history. I think it prevents us and it prevents me from doing my job in a place that I choose to call home. If it creates an opportunity for us not to have (an NCAA Tournament game at home), then yes, I’m offended.”
‘Man, that sucks’
Former USC point guard La’Keisha Sutton remembers thinking it was weird South Carolina still flew the Confederate flag prominently, but the New Jersey native had a more animated reaction after hearing USC could not host because of it.
“My feeling was like, ‘Man, that sucks,’” Sutton said. “We wanted to play in the South. Columbia has great support, but they can’t come see us play for what we worked so hard for during the season because of the Confederate flag.”
Women’s basketball teams that make the NCAA Tournament and were previously awarded a host site are almost always placed at that site. The Gamecocks traveled to West Lafayette, Ind., last season for their first NCAA Tournament trip under Staley.
Were Columbia eligible to host first- and second-round games, it wouldn’t be guaranteed to get them. But with the $64 million, 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena, a nearby airport and ample hotel accommodations, Columbia would have been a strong candidate.
The NCAA highly values all three of those factors when picking host sites, said Old Dominion Athletics Director Wood Selig, whose school hosted first- and second-round games last year and will host a Sweet 16 and Elite Eight site this year. If USC makes the Sweet 16, it would play at ODU.
“Our philosophy at ODU is we want to host as many NCAA championship events as we possibly can because it’s good for our teams if they are fortunate enough to be participating and able to play on campus,” Selig said. “It’s great for our fans who have been following the team or the sport all year long. We feel it’s good for our community because it brings a lot of economic impact to the area that would not otherwise occur.”
Selig said the NCAA gets the “lion’s share” of ticket revenue from host sites, though ODU usually breaks even or makes a small profit from hosting. But he doesn’t mind the NCAA taking a big cut from tickets because hosting allows ODU to enjoy visibility on a national stage.
Though USC’s women’s basketball team is most directly disadvantaged by the NCAA’s policy, cities in South Carolina suffer most from not being able to host — especially for the men’s basketball tournament, which tends to generate more money for local businesses than the women’s tournament.
A South Carolina city hasn’t hosted a men’s or women’s NCAA Tournament since 2002, when Greenville hosted men’s first- and second-round games, because the site was determined before the NCAA’s ban started.
‘I kind of always shake my head’
Since 2002, Raleigh, Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro have hosted a combined nine times for the men’s tournament.
Marion Edwards, a spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, said after the Confederate flag was removed from the State House dome in 2000, many organizations saw that as sufficient and stopped boycotting the state.
“There really hasn’t been a measurable (negative) economic impact (since then),” he said.
But his department hasn’t specifically tracked the flag’s economic impact because it would be too challenging, he said.
Edwards said arenas in South Carolina that would be eligible to host NCAA Tournament games might book other events in mid-March, so comparing the economic impact of basketball games and other events is difficult.
But what separates an NCAA Tournament from a high-profile concert is the number of out-of-town patrons who spend multiple days staying in hotels and eating at restaurants. A concert is a one-night event.
Mid-sized cities comparable to Columbia have seen substantial benefits from hosting men’s tournament games.
When Greensboro hosted last year’s first and second rounds, the area enjoyed a $14.5 million economic impact from hotels, restaurants and shopping, according to the Greensboro Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Dayton, Ohio, made $4 million from hosting last year’s First Four play-in games, according to its convention and visitors bureau. The city “conservatively” projects $8 million from this year’s First Four and first and second rounds, said the bureau’s CEO Jacquelyn Powell. She said the event is among the city’s most economically impactful.
Albuquerque, N.M., had first- and second-round games last year and received $801,000 just from hotel rooms and meals for players, coaches, officials and NCAA staff, according to its convention and visitors bureau. That doesn’t count fans’ spending in the community.
At least one Columbia business owner would love to make money off tournament games.
Brian Glynn, owner of the Five Points restaurant and bar The Village Idiot, said he makes 15 to 25 percent more money when USC hosts a baseball regional. He caters for visiting basketball teams during the season, so the state’s inability to host events hits him in the wallet.
Glynn said he hasn’t tried to partner with other local business owners to petition legislators for removal of the flag.
“Every year when the men’s NCAA Tournament comes around and you look at these regional sites, I kind of always shake my head,” Glynn said. “Look at that building we have there that is built perfectly for something like that. Every couple years, we could have a men’s or a women’s regional, but we never will. It’s laughable.”
‘It’s a black eye on the state’
The Confederacy recognized three national flags, and the one at the Confederate memorial on the State House grounds is the Army of Northern Virginia battle flag.
Though that version of the flag was not a political symbol for the Confederacy, South Carolina placed it in a position of prominence in 1962, on the State House dome with the United States flag and the South Carolina flag. For much of the time since, it has been a hotly debated topic.
It was originally hung to recognize the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, but it remained there during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In October 1999, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People unanimously approved a tourism boycott on the state until it stopped flying the flag atop the State House. The move prompted other groups to host their conventions elsewhere.
On April 12, 2000, the state Senate voted, 36-7, for a compromise on the issue. The flag was removed from the dome and the two legislative chambers. A smaller version was hung on the pole next to the Confederate memorial — front and center on Gervais Street.
South Carolina Supreme Court Justice Kaye Hearn said the flag is too high and prominently displayed. A godmother of two black children, she said the flag’s position doesn’t represent the state’s current, more progressive views.
“It’s a black eye on the state, no pun intended,” she said.
The NAACP opposed the compromise to hang the flag in front of the State House and continued its boycott because it said the site is still too prominent.
“I believe in respecting all human beings,” said Lonnie Randolph, South Carolina NAACP president. “For [state legislators] to have the attitude that it’s in the past, I will give you a William Faulkner quotation that should be South Carolina’s motto. William Faulkner said, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.’ That’s South Carolina.”
At the prodding of the NAACP and Black Coaches and Administrators, the NCAA adopted the Confederate Battle Flag Policy in 2001, which said the NCAA would “not award future predetermined sites in states where the Confederate battle flag continues to have a prominent presence.” Mississippi is the only other state that falls under the policy.
The original policy had a two-year shelf life, but in 2004 the NCAA said it would continue the ban indefinitely on South Carolina hosting because the flag continued to fly.
In 2009, the ACC followed the NCAA’s lead. Its 2011–13 baseball tournaments were scheduled for Myrtle Beach, but the league decided to move them to North Carolina cities because of the flag.
In 2006, the BCA pushed the NCAA to expand its ban to disallowing football and baseball teams from hosting championship events. The request was denied, so South Carolina colleges can host baseball regionals and Football Championship Subdivision playoff games, because those sports don’t use predetermined hosting sites, like men’s and women’s basketball do. Host sites for baseball and the FCS are determined after the season. The 2013 women’s basketball host sites were announced last February.
The NCAA declined to comment beyond its written policy.
Floyd Keith, former director of the BCA, said the NCAA did not give a reason for why the ban was not extended to baseball and FCS playoffs, the NCAA’s two most prominent early-round postseason events along with men’s and women’s basketball.
“We don’t think a Confederate flag has any place in our country, and the things that stood for are offensive to us and offensive to people of color,” Keith said. “I think our support with the NCAA and the NAACP is something that would be hard for us not to do. Until that is removed, our stance remains the same.”
For Mark Simpson, commander of South Carolina’s division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the flag next to the Confederate monument symbolizes a connection to his great-great grandfather, who fought in the war. All of the organization’s members have a direct family lineage to Confederate veterans.
Simpson doesn’t think the flag should be associated with slavery because he said most Confederate soldiers didn’t own slaves. He said his organization will do everything it can to keep the flag on public display.
“We make a connection to these people, people we never knew and never met,” Simpson said. “Somehow, and I really don’t know how to explain it, when you stand on the grave of a man whose blood literally, by DNA, runs through your veins, you stand there with a tear in your eye and a soft spot in your heart saying, ‘This was my grandfather, and I will do all I can to commemorate his memory as a decent American and a brave South Carolinian.’”
Frank Martin said he is proud to be Staley’s colleague, proud to watch her team practice and proud to watch her coach in games.
USC’s first-year men’s basketball coach would love Columbia to see tournament games, even though men’s teams can’t play in their own buildings. Like Staley, whose mother is black, Martin has his own perspective on the flag. His mother was born in Cuba, and his wife is black.
“It’s hard for me to formulate an opinion when it’s something I’ve never had to deal with,” Martin said. “I’m a minority, and I’m married to a minority, so I’m not about the things that used to happen. I live in the community now, and I don’t see (racial) negativity. I see a lot of positivity in that community, and that’s what makes me so happy to be a part of it.”
Martin said it’s a “crying shame” Staley’s team can’t play at home, after turning a floundering program into an NCAA tournament regular.
“We are the state university, and she’s done her part to build her program, so you’d like to think that she’d be afforded every opportunity that every other university around the country gets to be able to move her team forward and gain every possible advantage you can gain,” Martin said. “There’s nothing better than playing at home.”
As a former coach who enjoyed the benefits of playing at home in the postseason, USC Athletics Director Ray Tanner said he felt it was a competitive advantage for his baseball team to host regionals and super regionals. But he declined to offer his thoughts on the flag.
“I’m not going to enter into the flag controversy, per se,” Tanner said. “I don’t want to comment on the pros and the cons of the entire situation, but I’ll just speak to what Coach Staley is going through right now. It would have been great if we were a host site instead of having to go on the road with a pretty strong women’s basketball team.”
USC football coach Steve Spurrier has been more outspoken. In 2007, he said the state should get rid of the “damn Confederate flag.” Those comments resulted in Spurrier receiving death threats, Randolph said.
“I have never met Coach Spurrier, but he took a very bold stand,” Randolph said. “I applaud him for doing so.”
Spurrier downplayed the reaction he received. He stands by his comments and said the flag is “detrimental” to USC sports.
“I decided to express my opinion,” Spurrier said. “I felt like, at that time, I should. Our state of South Carolina would be better off without the flag because it irritates people. If it irritates a large group of people, why do we have it up there? That’s my opinion, and I have other things to worry about than that right there. If it was up to me, we wouldn’t have it flying at the state Capitol.”
At the women’s basketball party for the NCAA Tournament Selection Show, sophomore forward Aleighsa Welch talked about wanting Columbia to host before she graduates.
When told about the predetermined postseason event ban because of the Confederate flag, Welch was taken aback.
“Oh, wow,” she said. “Wishful thinking.”
Staley knew the flag was flying in a prominent place before she came to South Carolina, though she didn’t initially know about the NCAA’s ban. A natural optimist, she said she is hopeful USC will eventually host during her time at the school.
Others aren’t as optimistic, including USC President Harris Pastides, a member of the NCAA’s Executive Committee, a chief decision-making group. He doesn’t expect the flag to come down any time soon, or for the NCAA to change its stance.
“This issue comes up once a year, I believe, and there is absolutely no willingness for hosting any of those kinds of activities in any sport in this state because of the flag,” he said. “But to me, it’s certainly not an issue of fighting (the flag being up). That’s not going to prevail. That’s just the way it’s going to be in this state. When the governmental leaders of the state are willing to take up that debate again, I’ll certainly participate and have a voice in it.”
Still, Pastides isn’t shy about expressing his opinion on the flag’s impact now.
“It continues to be a barrier for economic development,” he said. “The fact that it offends people, including people in my own constituency — students, faculty and staff — it’s a concern to me. I’m told that it does (affect USC attracting students), but of course, many things do. It’s hard to measure how many applicants from other states don’t come to any school in the state because of the flag. It’s a very hard thing to assess, but I’m sure it’s there.”
Any bill to remove the flag would require a two-thirds vote in the General Assembly, according to state law. To pass most laws in the state, only a 51-percent majority is required. The two-thirds caveat was part of the compromise for the flag being moved off the State House dome.
State Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, a Republican, declined to comment through a spokeswoman because “he feels (the flag) is an issue of the past.”
Multiple messages to Democratic state Sens. Darrell Jackson and Robert Ford were not returned.
In 2011, Gov. Nikki Haley rejected the NAACP’s push to remove the Confederate flag from State House grounds.
“Many people were uncomfortable with that (2000) compromise, but it addressed a sensitive subject in a way that South Carolina as a whole could accept,” Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said in 2011. “We don’t expect people from outside the state to understand that dynamic, but revisiting that issue is not pat of the governor’s agenda.”
‘We should be able to host’
At USC’s Selection Show party Monday, Staley addressed fans and said she hopes they can find cheap plane tickets to Colorado. With USC being the top seed at its site, the sting of being unable to host is stronger.
“Everybody’s got an opinion on it,” Staley said. “If the NCAA feels like they don’t want to bring the tournament here because of the flag, they have every right to believe what they want to believe. Just as the people who want the flag there have every right to believe it should be there.
“Innocent people — meaning my team — don’t get an opportunity to play in postseason play where we feel like we’ve built a program here that if given an opportunity, we should be able to host.”